Salty dog ‘made ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence’

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Joan Sul­li­van Joan Sul­li­van is ed­i­tor of New­found­land Quar­terly magazine. She re­views both fic­tion and non-fic­tion for The Telegram.

Un­chained Man: The Arc­tic Life and Times of Cap­tain Robert Abram Bartlett By Maura Han­ra­han Boul­der Pub­li­ca­tions $21.95 350 pages

“Ex­plor­ers are not well­bal­anced … Re­ally com­pe­tent peo­ple would not un­dergo the tri­als of ex­plo­ration.

You have to be a bit daffy to do that.”

This quote from Isa­iah Bow­man, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety, opens the pages and sets the tone of Maura Han­ra­han’s com­pact bi­og­ra­phy.

There have been sev­eral books writ­ten about Cap­tain Bob Bartlett [1875, Bri­gus-1946 New York City], with more than one fo­cus­ing on the Kar­luk (which came to such grief in 1914), as well as by him, via his pub­lished logs. He’s ap­peared as a char­ac­ter in Michael Win­ter’s novel “The Big Why.”

We even have mo­tion pic­ture footage of Bartlett, cour­tesy of Var­rick Fris­sell’s “Vik­ing.”

Han­ra­han re­searched ar­chives in three coun­tries for “Un­chained Man,” her twelfth book and the lat­est as­sess­ment of Bartlett’s char­ac­ter, ca­reer, and legacy.

“Some might dis­miss Bartlett as an­other of New­found­land’s old salty dog types, only more fa­mous,” she writes.

“But Bartlett made ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence, ex­pand­ing the col­lec­tions of nu­mer­ous mu­se­ums and uni­ver­si­ties, ad­vanc­ing the un­der­stand­ing of the Arc­tic en­vi­ron­ment, and men­tor­ing noted sci­en­tists … he had a cen­tral place on the world stage and hob­nobbed with

aris­to­crats and pres­i­dents.”

In Han­ra­han’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, “He had a rich in­ner life but was lonely, not as a re­sult of cir­cum­stances but be­cause that was his na­ture.

He was smart, prag­matic, brave, and stoic.

He was also inse­cure, iso­lated, given to petu­lance, and deeply spir­i­tual.”

Han­ra­han has largely mar­shalled her ma­te­rial around Bartlett’s great ex­ploits — “In­side the Quest for the North Pole”; “The Kar­luk and Siberia in 1914” — and packed it with breadth and de­tail.

Pro­vi­sions on Robert Peary’s ex­pe­di­tion, for ex­am­ple, in­cluded 50 pounds of bis­cuits and tea, while they “es­chewed sleep­ing bags, doz­ing, in­stead, on their snow­shoes cov­ered by a piece of an­i­mal skin.”

It’s also con­tex­tu­al­ized, ac­knowl­edg­ing and de­cod­ing “ex­plorer’s cul­ture.”

Most ex­plor­ers were white, male, and Euro­pean, though Peary was born in Penn­syl­va­nia and African-amer­i­can Matthew Henson is a noted and cel­e­brated ex­cep­tion. Their dis­cov­er­ies of­ten came on well-trav­elled In­dige­nous ground; they of­ten be­came in­ter­na­tional celebri­ties whose “dom­i­nant Arc­tic ex­plo­ration ac­counts be­come myths and also spec­ta­cles” while vi­tal, ac­com­pa­ny­ing fig­ures like Inuit (or Sherpa) guides be­come oc­cluded or com­pletely over­looked.

Han­ra­han cast Bartlett’s own in­ter­ac­tions with In­dige­nous peo­ples in rel­a­tively pro­gres­sive light, but doesn’t claim Bartlett was some­how anachro­nis­ti­cally en­light­ened. It was sim­ply how he treated peo­ple.

As was his life­long de­vo­tion to Peary, who fell in and out of favour for dif­fer­ent rea­sons at dif­fer­ent times (and Bartlett stead­fastly sup­ported Peary’s claim that he had reached the Pole).

Bartlett com­manded his first ship, a sealer, when he was 17. When he be­came cap­tain of the Kar­luk he was 39. That mis­ad­ven­ture has been much chron­i­cled, but Han­ra­han spares no dis­turb­ing de­scrip­tive in a metic­u­lous ac­count­ing:

“Bartlett ar­ranged for the sur­vivors’ trans­fer to the Bear. When the ship reached Nome, he kept them on board, ar­gu­ing that, in their frag­ile con­di­tion, they would be sus­cep­ti­ble to con­ta­gious dis­eases.

They might, he later wrote, ‘fall vic­tim to some ail­ment of the civ­i­liza­tion to which they had so longed to re­turn.’ Per­haps this was a risk, al­though two days in iso­la­tion would hardly have made a dif­fer­ence.

It is more likely that Bartlett wanted to gather as much in­for­ma­tion as he could be­fore the world’s press de­scended on the sur­vivors, as he knew they would … Hav­ing lived through the con­tro­versy fol­low­ing Peary’s claim of the Pole, he knew that most tragedies at­tract scape­goats …“

Many of Bartlett’s ad­ven­tures were tragic and grue­some.

Han­ra­han doesn’t gloss over this, nor flinch from Bartlett’s own rep­u­ta­tion in Bri­gus, which was not uni­ver­sally heroic.

Han­ra­han goes deep into fam­ily rifts and quar­rels. The legacy of Hawthorn Cot­tage, for ex­am­ple, al­ready rather tan­gled with dif­fer­ent per­cent­ages of own­er­ship given to dif­fer­ent fam­ily mem­bers, comes to Bartlett if he does not marry into the fam­ily of But­lers.

Han­ra­han spends time and text try­ing to fathom and en­lighten this odd blunt pro­viso, with­out draw­ing a def­i­nite con­clu­sion — there are sug­ges­tions, but no clinch­ers, in the ev­i­dence.

For all its foot-noted den­sity, here’s a kind of askant-ness to

For all its foot-noted den­sity, here’s a kind of askant-ness to Han­ra­han’s writ­ing, per­haps be­cause there’s a slip­per­i­ness to her sub­ject.

Han­ra­han’s writ­ing, per­haps be­cause there’s a slip­per­i­ness to her sub­ject. She builds from the re­search, which can an­swer some ques­tions while deep­en­ing the mys­tery of oth­ers.

Did Bartlett ever have any chil­dren? What was his sex­u­al­ity? “At least some in Bri­gus viewed his prac­tice of writ­ing to his mother ev­ery day with sus­pi­cion.

One el­derly cit­i­zen who re­mem­bered Bartlett re­ferred to the let­ter-writ­ing: ‘What was all that about? That’d tell you some­thing.’ ” For all his pub­lic, what we would now call per­sona, Bartlett was pri­vate. De­spite his in­scribed global le­gend he is un­fixed as Arc­tic ice.

The book in­cludes a good few black and white pho­to­graphs, maps, fam­ily trees (as well as a full listing of peo­ple men­tioned in the book), end­notes, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and an in­dex.


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